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Senior Housing: When Will It Focus on What Really Matters? by Dan Hutson

We're living longer, healthier lives than ever, and senior housing options are not addressing our true needs. It's time for change.

We’ve all heard the news: We’re on the brink of becoming a permanently more mature society (agewise if not in our behavior). The number of adults 65 and older in the US — about 52 million — has tripled in the past century, will exceed the number of youths 18 and younger by 2030, and will become nearly a quarter of this country’s population by 2060.

A New Life Stage

What’s more interesting than the numbers is that a longer, healthier lifespan is creating a period of more productive, generative years. We’re seeing the emergence of a new life stage, much as we saw the dawn of the teenager in the 1920s and full emergence (largely thanks to mass marketers) in the 1950s. Everyone is beginning to wake up to the opportunities that accompany the new Longevity Economy — the $7.6 trillion in annual economic activity generated by the 50-plus market. This activity will drive economic growth in the US and globally for years to come.

Senior Housing Options

Which brings me to senior housing, an industry I’ve been a part of for more than a decade. Unless you’ve had an older family member who ended up moving into a retirement community, you may not be familiar with this living option. There are more than 23,000 age-restricted communities in the United States, offering a wide range of services designed to support older adults. They range from independent living (no healthcare services) to assisted living (some help with meeting daily living needs), skilled nursing (24-hour healthcare) and memory care (for those suffering from dementia).

As far as needs-based products go, there are many communities that do a great job of providing comfort, care and security for the frail elderly. And given the sheer number of boomers who will be managing various chronic health conditions as they age, it’s a safe bet that traditional senior living will continue to be with us for years to come.

But, What If You’re Fit and Healthy?

But…and this is a big but…what about the millions of boomers who stay relatively fit, cognitively sharp, and want to continue to engage with the rest of the world in an impactful way? This is a huge market opportunity for those already serving older adults, and yet we’re failing miserably in developing the products and services that will meet this group’s needs and desires.

In fact, I’d argue we haven’t been that successful in serving the current market. The entire senior housing industry probably serves no more than 5 million older adults out of a total population of more than 50 million. Or, if you’re a glass-nine-tenths-empty kind of person, we’re not serving nine out of 10 potential consumers. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the current business model.

Retirement Communities Aren’t Designed for Us

Why is this? Well, senior housing as currently designed and executed isn’t what most people want. “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to move into a retirement community” is something no one ever says. We don’t want to be segregated from the rest of society, spending our time playing cards or working on puzzles, taking the community bus to market once a week, listening to the local elementary school choir and feeling as if our best days are behind us. And for those communities whose marketing insists it’s a carefree, idyllic existence that’s “just like living on a cruise ship,” I have news for you — most of us don’t want to live on a cruise ship. I’d jump overboard after a couple of weeks.

The other major issue is affordability. There’s been a flood of recent stories on the lack of financial preparedness for retirement on the part of the next few generations, so I won’t belabor the statistics here. Senior communities largely serve an affluent, more financially comfortable segment of the population when one-third of all Americans report having no retirement savings and another 23 percent have less than $10,000 saved.

So, What Needs to Change?

If senior living communities are going to survive and even flourish in the future, they have to rethink the job they’ve been “hired” to do. Rather than simply provide comfort, care and security, they need to focus on meeting the higher-level emotional needs of their customers. Those needs aren’t a mystery; they’re what we all want in our lives.

·       Purpose and meaning: Everyone wants a life that matters. There’s nothing worse than to feel like your existence no longer has impact or makes a difference in the lives of others.

·       Connection: We’re hard-wired to be social. We want to maintain deep, meaningful relationships with family, friends and the community at large.

·       Stimulation: We want to continue to be creative, to grow and to learn.

·       Pleasure: It means different things to different people, but we all want to experience it on a regular basis.

·       Peace and fulfillment: Everyone wants to feel that the time we spend here is time well spent.

It’s not rocket science. Communities devoted to helping residents live their richest, most purposeful lives — supporting them in their quest to become their best selves — will find themselves deluged with prospective residents, eagerly seeking the experience they deliver.


Dan Hutson is a strategist, marketer and design thinker working in the Longevity Economy. His last gig was chief strategy officer for HumanGood, the nation’s sixth-largest nonprofit operator of senior living communities. His communications and marketing work have been recognized by the National Mature Media Awards, Content Marketing Awards, EXCEL Awards and Healthcare Marketing IMPACT Awards, among others. DHutson4994@gmail.com

See medical disclaimer below. ↓


  1. Lots of good stuff here, but I’m not that happy with your ageist statement! “We don’t want to be segregated from the rest of society, spending our time playing cards or working on puzzles, taking the community bus to market once a week, listening to the local elementary school choir and feeling as if our best days are behind us.” Come on. I live in a 55+ community and I’m a fulltime author who started a writers’ guild in my city. But even if all i wanted to do was play cards or work on puzzles, etc., that shouldn’t be something you deride.

    • Hi Lynne. My comment was aimed more at what communities offer in terms of opportunities, not a commentary on anyone’s personal choices. What constitutes a great life is determined by the individual. If I want to play cards, work on puzzles, read books all day, etc., then that’s my choice. My criticism is of communities that offer residents experiences that limit their opportunities. If it came across that I was being critical of individuals’ choices, that wasn’t my intent.

      • I know. It’s just a new day. Hard to get the language right. For example, just the word “old” is often, unthinkingly, used as a pejorative, and we tend to give ourselves the “not old” award based on how well we approximate the physicality of youth.

    • Exactly. Nor do they want retirement living cleverly disguised as home. I want an authentic home with genuine people who share my interest and curiosity, and desire to continue making an impact. Is that really so hard to deliver?

  2. Perfectly said, Dan! There is so much opportunity, but we have to risk thinking different and changing the offering, the messaging and the overall experience. I too would jump overboard. I also have a hard time telling people it is their best life yet, when the product does not at all match that statement. It is not a better or worse life scale, just different, and about opening yourself up to new ways of “doing” life. Please, keep encouraging all of us to assess what it is we offer to that insanely small 10% of the market.


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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.


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